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-- Bob Ruggiero

Shawn Mullins
Soul's Core
Columbia

Shawn Mullins is an unlikely one-hit wonder. After a stint in the army, he recorded six albums on his own label, carving out a loyal, if small, fan base from nine years of slogging it out on the listening-room circuit with cultish troubadours such as John Gorka and Billy Pilgrim. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an Atlanta radio station put "Lullaby" into heavy rotation, and the phone calls from major labels started coming in.

Mullins's talky paean to growing up in Los Angeles on the fringes of the entertainment industry, "Lullaby" straddles the line between pop and folk. With its drum-machine rhythm, playful keyboards and ultra-hooky chorus -- in which Mullins promises, in a wistful falsetto, that everything is gonna be all right -- the tune is more Don Henley than Bob Dylan.

Consider that the exception. Most of Soul's Core, Mullins's major-label debut and actually a reissue of his last indie release (plus a bonus track), is closer in form to the folk and country acts he cites as influences. On "The Gulf of Mexico," which hinges on a relatively spare guitar/drums/piano arrangement, he tells parallel stories of a waitress stuck in a bad marriage who dreams of freedom, and of himself caught in his musician's life on the road. (In true singer/songwriter fashion, the author reveals that he took the words from a journal entry he wrote in the Floribama parking lot.) But while Mullins's pretty, meticulously produced story-songs recall artists such as Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, they lack the incisive sentiment, ragged edges and raw, emotional content that characterize the best music of those artists.

It's a credit to Mullins that Soul's Core rarely sounds like a folkie struggling to go electric. But it may be a problem for those whose experience with folk extends beyond the shallow likes of Jewel.

-- Seth Hurwitz

Various Artists
Let's Be Frank: A Tribute to Frank Sinatra
Hip-O Records

Frank Sinatra was at his peak during one of the great periods of American songwriting, at a time when the American popular standards were being penned by the likes of Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter. So while a number of standards have come to be synonymous with Sinatra, in most cases there are several other great versions out there.

Hence the overall quality of Let's Be Frank, which compiles 16 songs made famous by Sinatra as recorded by other artists. Calling this a tribute album is a bit of stretch, as all the performances were recorded decades ago, and some of the performers -- Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington -- have been dead for years. But while one can quibble over the merits of compiling a bunch of previously released songs, it's hard to dispute the relevance of Fitzgerald's belting out "(Love Is) the Tender Trap," or Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson's toying with "Just One of Those Things," or Mel Torme's crooning "The Second Time Around." Other standouts: Chet Baker's classic, cool interpretation of "My Funny Valentine," and a young Lou Rawls covering "It Was a Very Good Year," with its enticing jazz/soul mix.

Among Frank's faults, Jack Jones, Matt Monro and the McGuire Sisters simply don't swing with the best of them. And was Paul Anka's sappy rendition of "My Way" really that necessary? Packaging-wise, the session information in the liner notes is sorely lacking, and at just under 50 minutes, the disc could have been longer. But that hardly makes Let's Be Frank's classiest moments any less worthwhile.

-- Paul J. MacArthur

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